Monday, November 5, 2007

Chesterfield Supervisor (Midlothian)

With the election set for Tuesday, the biggest question those of us concerned over the direction the County will take over the next few years is what are we to do with the Board of Supervisors?

Some will tell you that it is time that this entire Board be flipped. That of course is a possibility given this year that two of the current Republicans, Dickie King and Renny Humphrey, holding seats on the Board are not seeking re-election this cycle. Though these two individuals will no longer be representing their respective districts come January, I think that it is important to note thier valued service to this community as a whole and the efforts that set forth to make Chesterfield simply the best place to live in Virginia.

The races throughout the County for Supervisor have been very heated. We are confronted with a time in our history where we seem to playing catch-up with the overwhelming demand seeking the lifestyle we share here in Chesterfield. The last few Board of Supervisors have built it and PEOPLE have come. The question now remains not whether Chesterfield is going to grow further as some would promote, but rather how do we look at the growth that has occurred and manage it in such a way not to give up any of the quality of life assests that we have so enjoyed for so many years.

There are people who will focus on the negatives and that is certainly an acceptable position to take regarding the future. We do have some ground to cover and we have to begin the process of preparing the County for the next phase that IS already planned in the current policy of zoning approvals. Much of the growth we are to experience in the next ten to twenty years is already in the system. By this I mean the residential communities that are set to break ground in 2008 and develop the sites over the next twenty years. We all are familiar with the names by now, Magnolia Green, Branner Station, and Roseland (which is in differment at the present time ) and some other projects. The impacts on the County for these developments will effect everything from schools, road congestion and more retail to support the increase in population in those areas where retail may be under exposed to serving the growing locality.

My prediction and this again is soley mine is that we will see an increase by about 10 to 12 thousand students in County schools in the next fifteen years. I draw that conclusion based on the size of the homes being proposed in the above mentioned areas, but alos given the fact that we are sitting at a time when our families have on average 1.4 children on the low end and the fact that we are not really sure just what the impact will be with the expansion of Fort Lee over the next few years. The impact on schools will be significant if for no other reason than if you review what has happened in the last fifteen years and witnessed the overcrowding of our schools throughout this period during the latest growth stages there is certainly enough evidence to point toward the same result happening again.

If we BUILD it, they WILL come. Fact is most of the zonings are already in place for the next phase of gowth and that being the case we should be looking for people that are skilled enough to incorporate the results of the next phases of growth in a manner that benefits the whole.

I want to point out to many new residents that are experiencing many of these impacts for the first time that this is nothing new to Chesterfield. The lack of true accountability has created this. I attended Chesterfield County Schools in the 80's and THERE WERE TRAILERS THEN!!!
Trailers are not something new to Chesterfield. The County has been using them for some thirty years now. They have done so in large extent because there was never a real priority not to.

The point at which we begin to realize that on Tuesday we will not be impacting the next few years per say as much as we will ten and twenty out is significant in my mind. I am not placing blame for our current growing pains on the current Board because to do so is very near sighted, however I do put the responsibility of looking at creating solutions with the growth to lessen the impacts or results of such zonings on the community. This is why I have paid so much attention to impact fees and an increase in cash proffers. These are things that this Board could have done in the short term in order to begin to move in a more fiscally responsible manner for the future.

That said, I have failed to see one solution brought forward by candidates on this front. In the abscence of another bond referrendum, which could be argued is a cop out by politicians inability to make hard descisions on issues an appeasing the status quo on taxes, I fail to see a single plan how any of these candidates see us meeting the funding demands of the next ten years with regard to schools, roads and above all services.

Case in point: Many support the Meadowville Technology Park's connected access to I-295 but no one seems to want to demonstrate how they are going to pay for it or where in the budget the money is going to come from and where it is going to be taken from.

That withstanding, we are still forced to make a determination Tuesday. It comes down to where you feel your vote would move the debate further and in what specific area you feel is the most pressing.


This district race is a difficult one. You have two individuals who care deeply for the district. The incumbant, Don Sowder defeated his opponent last Fall in a special election and has represented the district admirably. Mr. Sowder is not a career politician seeking higher or other office and he has conducted himself as such while on the Board. Some of his accomplishments for Midlothian would be finalizing Watkins Center, though of course this was begun before his term in office and the revitilization of the Village of Bon Air currently underway. Sowder has been active in trying to keep the Villages unique charm and integrity intact with all the growth going on around them.

I believe Sowder will push to Revitilization of the Cloverleaf Mall area for development (bought by County before Sowder's term), will vote in support of implementing impact fees on properties zoned before the 1989 Cash Proffer System was created, believe he would use the Trasnportation Summit guidelines as a means of addressing the transportation issues at the same time trying to force the State to increase funding for road by working with Republican State Senators Watkins and Martin(should he win re-election) on this point but alos look at set asides and looking at supplemental funding. Sowder, a Republican mind you, also has spoken to the possibility of raising some of the business license taxes as well to help fund some of the requirements. Sowder has supported the school construction but as also addressed that it still is not sufficient to meet the demand of the county moving forward and school safety funding was increased during the last budget to address the growing concern in this area.

Dan Gecker, the challenger, has been working as the district Planning Commissioner since Ed Barbers tenure and was unsuccessful last Fall in his bid for the Supervisor seat for Midlothian. That election cycle was a draw in large part because of the Allen/Webb race at the top of the ticket and turnout may have been higher last fall than it will be Tuesday this year. None the less, Gecker did very well last year losing by about 1,600 votes in a predominately Republican district. Gecker has had considerable experience and influence in the growth debates as Chairman of the Planning Commissioner. This role has given Gecker increased visibility with regard to planning. It has to be pointed out that the PC and the Boardof Supervisors seem to be on different pages with regard to zoning approvals.

Gecker was a supporter of the Branner Station zoning recently and believes that the developer will mitigate many of the impacts by providing much of the infrastrcuture themselves within the zoning approval. Mr. Sowder abstained from a vote on the Board regarding Branner Station sighting the need for more study on the impacts to the greater community, however the re-zoning ultimately was approved by the Board. In the Roseland zoning, Gecker opposed the zoning case in large part due to last minute changes by the developer to meet staff questions and concerns as well as that of the community. This case was differed until late November thus Sowder has yet to vote on the issue.

Gecker has played a vital role in the process, but believes the current Board has neglected to set forth policy that would make "growth pay for growth" within the planning for the County. Currently, revenues are coming in at a ratio of 81/19 where the larger portion is out of the pockets of the citizen and not the business community. Gecker has not articulated a level at which he sees would be better suited. many localities the size of Chesterfield use a 70/30 formula throughout the Southeast.

Another issue before these two gentleman is the fact that Henrico County with less students in its schools but local contributions are 48% versus Chesterfields local contributions of 43% of spending as reported by the RTD (05/20/07). Henrico as about ten thousand students less than Chesterfield. Henrico like Arlington County also pays for maintaining its own roads and does not rely on the State for funding. So it begs a few questions as to why Chesterfield is unable to both adequetely address schools and roads when our neighbor across the river has. At the forum at Midlothian High School last Thursday, gecker did not seem in favor of Chesterfield taking over its funding for roads entirely and either did Sowder. Both would seek to leverage influence at the State level for more assistance. The probelm is we are the fourth largest locality and before us comes NVA and Hampton Roads where much of the oney is going.

If the General Assembly were to go Democrat on Tuesday in the State Senate, Chesterfield funding may also take a big political hit. Our influence in the Senate would be in the minority. This is why Chesterfield needs its own proposed solutions for its roads. The elected Supervisor would have to consider Transportation Districts, Special Improvement Districts, Transportation Authorities, impact fees (Gecker is opposed to these fees and voted against them as the PC voted them done last month) or earmarking 1 or 2 cents of the property tax ($.97) to roads.

The proerty tax in Chesterfield was lowered from $1.04 to $.97 this year in part because properties had to be brought up to market values as required by the State during assessments. Fact is our assessments have been lower than other localities across the state in comparison. The result of the increased assessments was higher tax bills on residents which in turn forced a push to lower the rate to offset the increase. Sowder supported the .97 cent level which was a compromise while Gecker supported a rate of .95. maybe what we should have done here was take the .97 and earmark the extra 2 cents in the compromise to roads and transportation. Regardless, the tax reduction was the lowest reduction in county history. gecker has often made the point that Sowder in effect by not voting for the .95 cent rate "raised" the taxes on residents.

Another aspect of the debate is the failure to address some of the other impacts on the County that will result from the zoning approvals that both candidates will endorse. It seems to me that the potential of another growth spurt that will result in the next fifteen years WILL require additional fire stations, police sub-stations and even libraries funded by the County. I have not heard much concerning funding for these things. People also need to realize that promoting growth at this level also brings in other concerns like access to pre-schools (most of which are on wait lists today) and the construction requirements of chruches and the land that must be available for construction. These are certainly little twists on the planning debates but are things that impact residents the most, not whether we have another Walmart or Target.

Another question I have is what will happen to the area around Chesterfield Towne Centre when Watkins Center is open for business. I know B&K is moving over to the mall where the movie theatre was that is now going up to Watkins. Target and Kohls plan to move up to Watkins which will leave the shopping center with Ukrops in it virtually empty given the fact that Payless has already left. Free market aside, what is the plan for addressing the continuation of retail sprawl westward. Mataoca and Clover Hill should brace for the same effect out Rt. 360 in three to five years. Gecker has spoken concerning this sprawl in the past but what can be done to curb it?

If you reside inMidlothian, I think the biggest thing we should be focusing on the managing what we already have here in addition to mitgating the impacts that the larger developments may have on the existing infrastructure. We have experienced much of our growth already in the last ten years, not to say that there are not stilllarge tracts of land available but the greater grwoth rate in terms of commercial/residential activity is moving elsewhere in the County.

If you are voting out of concern for the district than I think that Mr. Sowder has certainly delivered on the committments that he made last Fall and would certainly be able to continue to represent Midothian. An example of this was Mr. Sowders vote to remove the funding from the School Board that was set for pre-k funding because Midlothian would not see any benefit from that funding whereas other areas may have outside the district.

However, if you believe the greater issue is facing growth and planning in the county at large than Mr. Gecker may be better positioned to address those areas and may be the best option for your vote based on his specialization.

In the end, it comes down to where you believe your Supervisor should be concentrating his representation. Should he represent his District first or should be represent the greater community of Chesterfield?

Kind of makes you wonder why it is we do not have "at-large" members on the Board of Supervisors?


Andrea Epps said...

This is a very insightful, objective post. A supervisor should be able to look after their district and they should all be looking out for the greater good. In the final analysis however, I think reality sets in about year two, when each finds themselves beholden to someone. It would be virtually impossible to be an effective leader without the ability to negotiate, but negotiation should not equal selling a single area short. At-large supervisors would be wonderful.
Case in point- everyone blames the BOS for issues with schools, but few people look at the decisions made by the school board. We will always need school space, but if the school board would redistrict to maximize space and minimize travel distance for students, they would save all around. What I find lacking in this election (with the exception of one or two) have been candidates who discuss the benefits of large scale master planned communities. (Full disclosure, I am the Land Use Administrator for Magnolia Green, but that does not mean I am wrong) The public seems frightened by Magnolia Green, but through zoning they had made land provisions for two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, a fire station, a library, and a water tank. They are going to totally rebuild Otterdale and Woolridge roads in addition to making significant improvements to Hull St. This development is mitigating its own impact. If memory serves me correctly, Dan voted for Branner Station because he realized that development would provide benefits to the county as well. They are offering $88,000,000.00 in infrastructure improvements. What more can a reasonable individual ask for or expect?
There is another issue that seems to be mentioned even less, and I am in no way criticizing anyone or any community, but there are developments in Chesterfield that were zoned with nothing. The people that are living in these newer communities (by the thousands) are the same people complaining about growth. Someone needs to explain to explain human settlement patterns to the greater public.
I was on the Impact Fee Advisory Committee. Impact fees could be useful as a tool if the proffer system was limited to specific land dedications, the legislation was amended and the concept had the true support of all of the various county departments. While I never thought I would say this, as written (even though it is 50 million over 20 years) it isn’t there yet.
Anyway, tomorrow is going to be interesting, and I for one, will be glad to get rid of the signs. Thanks again for the great post.

James said...

Andrea Epps-
I find Magnolis Green to be one of the models for the future in terms of planning, as well as Branner Station for that matter. Its hard to be the first new real "planned" development since Brandermill. I do not mean to imply anything against the staff at the planning department, what I mean is as a whole taking the sum of all the parts and looking at the contributions to the greater good. This would mean addressing the creation and funding of the schools that will be required to educate those within the areas being developed which is what Magnolia and others do.
Residents need to be brought up to speed on these matters and be shown exactly what the developers ARE providing. The myth out there is the developers do not care about the communities and they build, sell and move on. Ifor one do not buy into this myth.
This blog has provided some necessary insights to the dialogue that get lost at meetings and the reporting of those meetings by the papers, Observer, Village News or Times-Dispatch.
The only reason people are frightened is they are uninformed. The role of any great Supervisor, is first and foremost a great communicator with his constituents. His role should be to address those fears and as J. Scott has always said it ivolves a more transparent local government. There needs to be partnership and we as "citizens" have our part to play and it is not just going to the polls.

Andrea Epps said...

Thank you James.
I am more grateful than I can express to see that you have the courage to acknowledge the benefit of what we are trying to do.
I sit on the BOD in Brandermill, and Magnolia Green was zoned by the same person. There is a lot of potential out here.